Small-town bookstore attracts large following

Posted: Thursday, January 09, 2003

BLYTHEVILLE, Ark. -- The landscape in northeastern Arkansas is flat as far as the eye can see.

Along the city's 1930s storefronts, Mary Gay Shipley runs That Bookstore in Blytheville. Among colorful stacks of books, a tall, 58-year-old woman with salt-and-pepper hair is seated at a table sipping bottled water. Shipley is tying twine and white ribbon around books that a customer has ordered as gifts for some friends.

''I'm not one of these aspiring novelists that opened up a bookstore,'' she says. ''I opened up the bookstore because there was a void here. And it's been a wonderful life.''

After 26 years as a bookstore owner, Shipley is rethinking her future. Caring for her elderly parents and living in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made her pause and reflect.

''I kind of explain it like deer-in-the-headlights where you know you're supposed to be doing something, but you're not quite perked up to do it,'' she says. ''I'm thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life and thinking about life without the bookstore.''

Shipley's forte is being able to do a lot of things at the same time with ease. She can give each customer and task her attention. These abilities have endeared her to people beyond her home town of 18,272 and made That Bookstore in Blytheville known to publishing houses in New York and to popular writers such as John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Fannie Flagg.

''There are a couple dozen independent bookstores across the country that are really the creme de la creme of what a bookstore is and That Bookstore in Blytheville would be one of them,'' says David Gernert, a former editor-in-chief at Doubleday who now heads a New York literary agency that represents Grisham.

Shipley opened the store when the only place for nearby farmers and their families to find books were the sparse shelves of the public library and a spinner rack of Westerns at the local five-and-dime. She had no yearning to live or work in America's big cities.

''I think I really just like small-town living. I like buying things from people I know.'' she says as she points to a young man entering the store through the back door.

From her bookstore, Shipley arranges book signings, scholarly lectures, music concerts, storytelling hours, book drives for Head Start programs, book clubs and community fund-raisers.

''The small towns offer some intimate opportunities, especially here with authors,'' she says. ''You're not one of 5,000 people watching someone with binoculars down there.''

Her store now is as big as she wants it to be, open seven days a week and doing business on the Internet. While sales have dropped off since the terror attacks, the store has survived because of her writer friend, Grisham, Shipley says. While television and lethargy are her biggest competitors, she has learned that she can't go wrong if she selects the right books.

''Some people can't read. Some people won't read. But I have found that it depends on what the book is,'' she says. ''My husband hasn't read a book since he got out of high school. But he wants to read every book that John Grisham has written.''

In due course, she says, she'll figure out her plans for the store, whether it be selling it or hiring someone to take her place. She's emphatic, though, about one thing.

''I'm not going to be one of these people, 80 or 90 years old, still coming to the store, unlocking the door,'' she says.

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